Women in precarious employment at increased risk of workplace violence

How the Jian Ghomeshi case can help disrupt culture of hegemonic masculinity
Photo: mirza_d

The Ghomeshi scandal has created an exceptional moment of national introspection.

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It has forced us to collectively reflect upon how a once-beloved radio interviewer could become the subject of a long and growing list of sexual assault allegations from many women (and at least one man) spanning more than a decade. Criminal charges have been laid. In this context, there has been considered public discussion around the topic of #beenrapedneverreported relating to the reasons rape is not reported.

In the workplace, the reality of women not reporting serious crimes and human rights violations must be understood in the context of hegemonic masculinity — the patriarchal, spatial and cultural control of workplaces, which fosters a precarity of employment for women.

The general public has learned more about the underbelly of large corporate radio as the CBC (like Parliament Hill) has been revealed to harbour its own skeletons — not forgotten bones hidden in closets, but rather flesh-and-blood precarious workers in plain sight.

The CBC’s initial inquiry into Ghomeshi and hiring of a public relations firm were triggered by an anonymous tweet sent in the name of Ghomeshi’s teddy bear in April 2014. The tweet reads: “Hi there Jian Ghomeshi. Remember louring me to ur house under false pretences? Bruises dont lie. Signed, every female Carleton U media grad.”

It appears that for years university media students were warned against pursuing an internship on Ghomeshi’s popular show, Q. As one Western University professor explained, he heard complaints from young women that were not reported. Among the reasons cited for not reporting were that many women felt intimidated by Ghomeshi’s position of power and were concerned about their careers.

Young women working in low or unpaid media interning positions face multi-faceted vulnerabilities, most obvious of which is the precarity of their employment. Precarious work may be characterized by lack of permanency to low wages to inconsistent scheduling. Immigration status, gender, sexual orientation and racialization are known factors impacting the likelihood of precarious employment.

Young women working in low or unpaid media interning positions face multi-faceted vulnerabilities, most obvious of which is the precarity of their employment.

Once a media intern finishes a contract or co-op placement, she faces the prospect of unemployment. In the event that no job offer is made, her goal is to have developed industry connections that will advance her career opportunities. As such, she must endeavour to impress at every opportunity.

As a man in a position of power over young women interning at Q, Ghomeshi was poised to exploit their precarious working conditions, thereby perpetuating the culture of hegemonic masculinity. It should not be startling, therefore, that the “boys’ club” of narcissism, womanizing and harassment within the CBC is alleged to also include personalities such as the late Peter Gzowski and Peter Mansbridge. That Ghomeshi was outed is significant, but may be symptomatic of a more fundamental problem of a normalized workplace culture of bullying that preys upon the precarity of women workers.

Workplaces in Canada are dominated by patriarchal values. The restaurant industry, for instance, provides a graphic example of how women are induced, coerced, threatened or contractually compelled to wear revealing uniforms, which are intentionally provocative and sexualized. Restaurant workers are [40 per cent] more likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace as compared to other industries, according to Chia-Jeng Lu and Brian H. Kleiner in the International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy.

That the wearing of sexualized uniforms can be a basic expectation of an employment contract in Canada today may seem somewhat startling; however, these standards are often unwritten and policed through mechanisms of scheduling and tip earnings.

In a more professionalized environment, expectations about the dress, comportment and workplace interactions of women workers is strongly influenced by worker precarity. In different industries, the dilemma facing precarious workers can take various forms. A server may be asked to consider whether she would like to have fewer shifts if she refuses to wear a short skirt. A seasonal agricultural worker is faced with the choice of insisting on basic labour standards at the risk of losing the next season of work. For those working in the underground economy, the discussion of worker protection does not even arise.

CBC management acquiesced to Ghomeshi’s continued inappropriate conduct towards women for months if not years

Much as owners and managers encourage the sexual exploitation of a waitress in a revealing dress, CBC management acquiesced to Ghomeshi’s continued inappropriate conduct towards women for months if not years until, apparently, visual evidence of violence against a woman (outside of the workplace) precipitated his firing. That the toxic environment at the CBC was admittedly permitted to fester for so long is precisely the problem. It is exactly this systemic acquiescence to hegemonic masculinity that facilitates its continuance in countless workplaces.

To respond to the structural exploitation of precarious women workers requires effective redress for precarious workers and a marked shift in the culture and informal rules of the workplace. While unionization is one method of protection against sexualized and gender-based workplace exploitation, formalized grievances pit the grievor against both her harasser and the entire structure of the workplace, which may include the union itself.

Expecting the systemic problems of worker precarity to be vanquished by an adversarial complaints-driven model of human rights protection is to misunderstand the causes and consequences of precarious work. Such an individualized approach will undoubtedly entrench the existing precarity of women workers in Canada. Human rights and occupational health and safety bodies should use existing legislative and administrative powers to launch systemic investigations into the diversity of workplaces that employ precarious workers without the need to first discover another Ghomeshi scandal.

While public outrage is fuelling a desire to see systemic change within the CBC, hegemonic masculinity is not a unique occurrence there or even within Canadian media organizations. Accordingly, to fight this structural problem we need to mount strong and continued public campaigns to support the rights and dignity of precarious women workers in Canada who face Jian Ghomeshis day in and day out in invisible jobs all across this country.

The burden should not be left to the most precarious workers in the country to shoulder the weight of such an initiative. It is not “their problem”: the responsibility for erasing the injustice of hegemonic masculinity and its consequences belongs to all of us who passively or actively acquiesce to its existence.

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